from The Canterbury Tales in Modern Verse
Cambridge, MA, Hackett: 2005
Available from Amazon and other online
THE REEVE'S TALE
At Trumpington, just outside Cambridge,
A brook runs down
beneath a bridge,
And standing by this pleasant rill,
In all God’s truth, there is
The jolly miller dwelling there
Was peacock-proud and free of care.
could pipe or catch a fish
Or shoot an arrow where he wished,
Play drinking games
or wrestle hard,
And at his belt he wore a sword,
A dagger too, well ground and slim.
No prudent man would quarrel with him.
A Sheffield blade tucked in his hose,
round face with flattened nose,
And ape-hair matted on his skull
Proclaimed the man
a surly bull.
Few neighbors ever dared to anger
This vile and vengeful noggin-banger.
Then too he pilfered grain and meal,
A sly deceiver, born to steal.
was his name.
His wife was of some local fame.
The parson had begotten her,
her dowry, I infer,
To join the miller to his blood.
Nuns tended to the little bud,
For Simkin wanted to be sure
The girl was gently raised and pure,
And fit to be a
She grew up spoiled for common life.
On holidays, no one could see
A vainer pair of their degree,
He with his hood wound round his head,
in a gown of red,
His fiery hose dyed just the same.
Everybody called her “dame.”
No man dared seduce this wife,
For Simkin would cut
short his life,
Corner him and go to work
With cutlass, bodkin, knife, and dirk.
Such men are hot as boiling tar,
Or want their wives to think they are.
As she was
born beneath a cloud,
She made it up by being proud,
And went about with nose in
She thought no lady living there
Could match her blood or mock the carriage
The nuns taught her before her marriage.
They had a daughter, you should know,
A girl of twenty years or so,
And a jolly infant less than one,
A little boy, their
The girl was large—she grew up fast—
A pushed-in nose, eyes gray as glass,
A big, broad bum, and pillowy breast,
But her hair was handsome, I attest.
the parson thought her fair.
He meant to make the girl his heir:
She’d have his goods
and household stuff,
And more, if she wed well enough.
He hoped she’d win a noble
The grandest suitor she could catch.
Since holy church goods must go wholly
To churchmen and their families solely,
He’d make her rich, her and her lord,
skimming from the church’s hoard.
Our miller had exclusive rights
To grind for
all surrounding sites,
Especially one Cambridge college,
King’s Hall, a noble fount
of knowledge. later merged into Trinity College
He ground the scholars’ wheat
It happened once through no one’s fault,
Their manciple became unwell,
Confined entirely to his cell.
If Simkin despoiled their flour
He stepped it up a hundredfold.
Where once he stole a little bit
He now filched
all that he could get.
Let the warden rage and curse. master
of the college
That only made his losses worse,
While Simkin sulked and acted hurt.
Two ragged scholars, bright and pert,
Were living in this same King’s Hall,
lads for any prank or brawl.
Each thought he spied a chance for fun,
And begged the
warden, two on one,
To let them journey as they willed
To see a load of dry grain
They’d foil the miller, by their neck.
He couldn’t short them half a peck.
Let him try. Of course they’d know.
At length the warden let them go.
One was John,
Allan the other,
Both from a little town called Strother,
Far to the north. I don’t
They chose a horse for this affair,
Brought out the grain and strapped
And set out jingling, just at dawn,
With swords and bucklers by their side.
John knew the way without a guide.
At the mill they dumped the grain,
work, Simkin, in your vein!
How are your daughter and your wife?”
Simkin, “by my life.
Allan and John, what brings you here?”
“My friend,” said John,
“need has no peer.
Without a servant one can’t shirk;
As need determines, he must
Our manciple is nearly dead,
To hear the teeth clash in his head,
So I have
come, and Allan too,
To bring our unmilled grain to you.
Perhaps you’ll grind the
“Done,” said Simkin, “right away!
What will you do while it is milling?”
“Stand by the hopper, if you’re willing,”
Said John, “and watch the grain go in.
I never saw, by all my kin,
How hoppers shuttle to and fro.”
Then Allen said, “And
I will go
Below the millstone, by my crown,
And watch the flour tumble down
the trough, a pleasant sport,
For, John, I’m one of your own sort,
A novice miller,
as you say.”
“Ah,” Simkin thought, “my lucky day.
How can they think I’m not aware
They mean to hold me to my share?
Let’s see them match my roguery
For all of their
The more smart tricks they try to play,
The more I mean to steal today.
In place of flour, I’ll give them bran!
Your scholar’s not the wisest man,
the wolf heard from the mare.
So let them watch. As if I care!”
He stepped outside
beyond their sight
And when he saw the time was right
He made a circuit of the mill
And found their horse well hitched and still,
In a little arbor’s shade.
slipped into the glade,
Removed the bridle, set it free.
The horse let out a glad
Toward a swamp where wild mares ran
And made off as the miller planned.
Saying nothing of the horse,
The man left things to run their course
flour was fairly ground,
Neatly sacked, securely bound.
Then John found out the nag
And called out, “Allan, we’re undone!
The horse has bolted, by God’s trumpet!
Stir yourself! Come on, man, hump it!
The warden’s sure to have us brained!”
forgot his meal and grain.
All those cares evaporated.
He stared about him addlepated.
The wife came squawking like a hen,
“Alas, your horse is in the fen!
will lead him far away!
Curse the hand that let him stray;
He should have been much
You’ve lost him now for sure,” she cried.
“Allan,” said John, “put
off your sword.
And I’ll do likewise. On my word,
I can outrun any buck.
him with a little luck.
You should have put him in a stall.
My God, have you no sense
The clerks stripped down to run a course
Against their foe, Bayard, the
Meanwhile, the miller seized his hour,
And half a bushel of their flour.
He gave it to his wife to take
And knead into a mighty cake.
He said, “Just watch
those scholars work!
A miller’s too much for a clerk.
Their learned arts get in their
But, Lord, they’re nimble! Watch them play!
The horse is faster, by my crown.”
The silly clerks ran up and down,
With “Whoa!” and “Stop” and “Watch out there!”
“I’ll head the beast! He’s gone! Now where?”
But it was far into the night
the horse gave up the fight.
Splashing in mud as black as pitch,
They got him harnessed
in a ditch.
Then worn and wet as beasts in rain
They turned back to the mill again.
“Alas,” said John, “that I was born!
All we’ve achieved is shame and scorn.
is gone, and we’re two fools.
Unfit to play by grown men’s rules.
Whatever will the
And so John grieved along the way,
Leading Bayard through the mire.
They found the miller by his fire.
Now it was late and they were caught.
their hands and humbly sought
A lodging there. They said they’d pay.
Such as I own, you’ll have a part.
The house is small, but can’t
By argument, stretch any place—
A mile from twenty feet of space?
my room will suit you each,
Or make it bigger with a speech.”
“Simkin,” said John,
“by Cuthbert’s ghost, St. Cuthbert, c 635-87
Indeed you make a merry host.
I’ve heard men say, ‘Have one of two:
What’s there or what you brought with you.’
If you provide us meat and beer,
Allan and I will hold you dear.
And we shall pay.
Don’t think we’ll baulk.
No empty hand can catch a hawk.
Look now, here’s silver,
by my head.”
The girl was sent for beer and bread
While smiling Simkin broiled
Secured Bayard from getting loose,
And made a bed in his own room,
sheets and blankets in the gloom,
Close to where the couple slept
And where his daughter’s
bed was kept—
Three beds together, side by side,
Because, for all the miller’s pride,
There was no other room to use.
The scholars supped and traded news,
And felt the
ale go to their heads,
Till midnight came, and time for bed.
The miller’s brain
was turned by ale,
Sheer drunkenness had left him pale.
He burped and snorted through
And babbled hoarsely in his throes.
He climbed in bed beside his wife
found her keen as any knife,
For she had wet her whistle too.
The baby’s crib, as
such things do,
Sat by the footboard of her bed.
Now that the crock of ale was dead,
The girl retired with little noise,
And so did both the college boys.
need a sleeping draught.
The miller had drunk himself so daft
He let out horse-snores
in his sleep
And thunderous farts both long and deep.
His wife sang tenor to his
The walls shook in that little space.
The girl snored too, par compagnie.
When Allan heard this melody,
He shook his friend and said, “Asleep?
I swear their
snoring makes me weep.
God, how they sing their midnight hymns!
May wild fire burn
their heads and limbs!
Their snores have set me wondering:
How to repay such thundering?
I’ll never get a bit of rest;
Still, . . . that may turn out for the best.
as I’m a proper bloke,
I’ll give that girl a manly poke.
Some compensation’s owed
For, John, I swear the law reads thus:
“If in one thing you’re aggrieved,
Choose another to be relieved.”
Our wheat is stolen, as I say,
And we’ve been badly
Well, since I’ve had no quid pro quo,
I’ll pay myself before I go.
God, I’ll have that girl indeed!”
“But, brother,” said his friend, “take heed!
The miller plays for heavy stakes.
Suppose she squeals and he awakes.
He’ll do us
Allan said, “Just wait and see.”
The room was steeped in darkest
He found the girl upon her back,
And got to work when he came nigh
that she couldn’t cry,
Not that she cared, once he was on.
Let Allan play; consider
John lay still a little space,
Stark consternation on his face.
said, “a wicked jape.
Of all of us, I am the ape.
Allan has something for his harms,
To wit, the daughter in his arms.
He took a chance, and now he’s sped,
While I lie
like a chump in bed;
And when this joke is told one day,
I’ll be the nitwit of the
Well, let me rise and try my luck.
No one succeeds without some pluck!”
rose up then and felt around,
Seeking the cradle, which he found
And moved discreetly
by his bed.
The wife soon shook her muddled head,
And stumbled out to have a piss.
Then back. But soft now, what’s amiss?
There was no cradle by her way!
said, “I’ve gone astray.
This must be the young clerks’ bed.
God’s providence great,”
She found the cradle with her hand,
And then the bed just as she planned.
As nothing happened to recall her,
She snuggled down beside the scholar
And lay quite
still and would have slept,
But John let out a snort and leapt,
And clasped the wife
in such a way,
She knew what game he meant to play,
And let him delve for all his
Ah, now both scholars swam in mirth,
Until the cock began to sing.
was running out of string,
The lad had worked beyond his strength.
he said at length,
“It’s morning now; I mustn’t wait.
But from this hour, I tell
This scholar will remember you.”
“Ah, love,” she said, “I hope that’s
But hear this, Allan; listen well:
As you go out by father’s mill,
the door and look around.
You’ll find a cake of fifteen pounds.
That cake was made
of your own meal,
Fresh flour I helped my pa to steal.
Farewell,” she said, and turned
And with that word she almost cried.
Allan thought: “Before it’s dawn,
creep back into bed with John.”
He found the cradle with his toes.
“By God,” he murmured,
“that was close!
My head’s so woozy from my work,
I’ve come the wrong way by some
This cradle marks the miller’s bed.
Let’s try the other one instead.”
so he crawled, the devil’s prey,
Into the bed where Simkin lay.
He thought the miller
there was John,
Climbed in beside him with a yawn,
And grabbed his neck and whispered
“Pig’s head! Here’s something you should know.
For Christ’s sake hear a noble
For by Saint James in all his glory,
Three times so far in this short night,
I’ve had the girl with great delight,
While you lay quailing in your bed!”
“Muck!” said the miller, “I’ll have your head!
Traitor! Scholar! Where’s my knife?
By God, I swear I’ll end your life!
Would you ruin and degrade
My daughter, such
a well-born maid?”
He caught him by the Adam’s apple
And held him down to knee and
And smote him roundly on the nose.
Hot blood shot out as from a hose.
miller freshened his attack.
They writhed like two pigs in a sack.
Never was a fight
Till Simkin stumbled in the dark,
And fell down backward on his wife.
Now she knew nothing of their strife,
For she was sleeping like the dead,
by serving John in bed.
She started up, called out in fright:
“Great Cross of Bromeholm,
give me light! a shrine in Norfolk
In manus tuas! Set me free!
Into your hands [Lord,
Alack! The devil’s taken me! I
commend my spirit].
My heart is shattered; I am dead;
He’s crushed my womb and cracked
Up, Simkin, for the scholars fight!”
Next, John awoke without a light,
And groped about to find a staff.
The wife did too on her behalf.
She knew the layout
brick by brick,
And by the wall she found a stick.
A sliver of the moon’s bright
Gleamed in the room, though it was slight.
Two shadows tussled to and fro,
But who was who, she couldn’t know
And then she saw a whitish patch
Jounce up and
down with great dispatch.
“Ah, that’s the scholar’s cap!” she thought.
to where they fought,
She swung the staff with all her might,
But missed the lad
for want of light,
And cracked her husband’s hairy skull.
That did for him. She heard
“Help!” he said. “I die today!”
The two clerks thrashed him where he lay,
Then gathered up their horse and traps
And took their flour, and more perhaps.
found their cake inside the mill,
The full half bushel by its feel.
And thus the
miller was lambasted,
And lost his flour and cake untasted,
And cooked his goose
for free, by God,
For two who flayed him with a rod.
His wife’s debauched, his daughter
To give the churlish knave his due.
He proved the saw, a bitter pill:
man shall suffer ill.”
A swindler swindled, you’ll agree,
Suits God in his high majesty.
Christ save all pilgrims without fail!
And thus I've capped the Miller's tale!
The mare told the learned wolf the price of her foal was written on the bottom of
her hind hoof. When he looked, she kicked him.
Return to Joe Glaser Homepage